13 November 2015

Et Tu, Woz — Steve Jobs Movie Review

Vulture had a great post this week that reviews the opening lines of 17 new books. I'm a speed-reader and I rarely remember the first lines of a novel but at the cinema, I find that the opening scene is crucial for establishing the tone and structure of the whole film. I was particularly annoyed, then, to miss the first few minutes of Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs biopic because the Curzon didn't show any adverts and the only visible employee, who was busy making soy lattes, assured me I had ten minutes before the film started. It's the first time I've been back to the Curzon since they ditched their weekend earlybird screenings, losing my custom and my goodwill, but I was tempted by a £5 screening on my day off today. They haven't won me back.

Steve Jobs focuses on the eponymous visionary and controversial Apple co-founder (played here by Michael Fassbender) at three crucial moments in his career. Three product launches, in fact: the Mac in 1984, the NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. We don't see the launches themselves; just Jobs's last-minute preparations with his head of marketing, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), and last-minute confrontations with the same three ghosts of Jobs past.

Although the structure is, necessarily, artificial, it works rather well, allowing you to dive back into Jobs's life and see his latest creation and whether he has changed (of course not!). Even if you didn't know that Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay, this would be immediately evident. The dialogue is extensive, fast-paced and sharp. As with The Social Network, which was also penned by Sorkin, there is a lot of tech speak and geekery, and a central character who has neither the time nor the inclination to explain himself to those who cannot keep up.

At each launch, Jobs talks with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), who, each time, asks him to acknowledge the Apple II crew. Each time, Jobs refuses, frustrating his friend with his arrogance and single-mindedness. He is the ghost of Jobs present. Then there is John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the ghost of Jobs past: his one-time boss and mentor, with whom he discusses his adoption and parentage. Later, of course, the two fall out.

The most interesting relationship is between Jobs and his daughter Lisa, the ghost of Jobs future. Her mother, Jobs's ex Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), brings Lisa to each launch. Each time she asks for more money. At the Mac event, he refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter but, backed into a corner with only a few minutes before he has to go on stage and swayed by her drawing on Mac Paint, he agrees to Chrisann's request. His relationship with Chrisann remains volatile throughout the film although he does begin to accept Lisa into his life and it is at these moments when the film is at its most emotional. Jobs doesn't become more likeable, but you get the sense that perhaps there is more to the man than the revered technology genius.

I enjoyed the film: Sorkin's script is very funny in places, although it's a distancing, not a warm, humour as we laugh at Jobs's tireless arrogance. He variously compares himself to a god-like figure, a Beatle, Einstein, Caesar and Alan Turing. "I don't want people to dislike me," he says. "I'm just indifferent to whether people dislike me." He describes the Mac launch as the second most significant event of the 20th century, after World War Two. His disdain for others — colleagues, family, customers — is always apparent.

This is not the stuff of sympathetic characters, but Fassbender's performance is very impressive. His Jobs is not pleasant but he is charismatic, passionate and compelling. The human touches are left to other characters, particularly Winslet's long-suffering Joanna, who stands by Jobs, encouraging him to do the right thing. "I'm the one who has to explain you to people," she complains. Sadder are his arguments with Woz, who tries to be a friend despite what has happened in business. "You can be decent and gifted at the same time," Woz argues. Jobs is unconvinced.

Ultimately, although Boyle's film is compelling and entertaining, I left the cinema feeling unsatisfied. For me, it just didn't have enough heart. That may be down to the subject, but Mark Zuckerberg, as portrayed in The Social Network, was no more sympathetic and yet that film is still moving and has an emotional core, perhaps because it allows you to get to know the central characters intimately enough to really care what happens to them. Jobs's, and thus Boyle's, single-minded focus on the products over the people creates a heavy air of detachment. Even the score often emulates the iconic Mac start-up sound.

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